The Asia Issue
37 Asian Odysseys
Published: March 18, 2011
1 Ubud Get yourself to the bustling Ubud market by 6 a.m and watch the colorful daily routine of locals buying everything from fruit to religious offerings. Enjoy a hearty sweet or savory bubur (similar to rice pudding), and from there head by foot to the end of Jalan Kajeng for a 90-minute hike through traditional rice paddies to Tjampuhan, a neighboring hamlet. Top it all off with a healing Balinese-style massage at the Ubud Bodywork Centre back in town.
Christie Johnston/Associated Press
Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News
2 Phnom Penh Wake up early and hail a tuk-tuk to the Russian Market. Find the crafts section where hand-loomed silk scarves and silver jewelry can go for a song, and replicas of antique opium pipes and Angkorian-era Buddha statues will have anyone fooled. Have lunch at Friends, staffed by former street children who serve Khmer chicken curry, shrimp won tons and tempting cocktails (mangosteen daiquiri, anyone?). Then head to Sisowath Quay and hire a boat for a cruise on the Tonle Sap River for views of Phnom Penh’s pagoda-dotted skyline.
3 Siem Reap Once you’ve conquered Angkor, explore the area’s far-flung temples, like Banteay Srei, with its intricate red sandstone carvings. Mysterious Kbal Spean, or the River of a Thousand Lingas, is about 10 miles farther: a short walk through the jungle leads to a riverbed filled with Hindu sculptures. For an unadulterated Cambodian market experience, spend a morning at Psar Krom in Siem Reap, where you’ll shimmy through packed aisles lined with flopping fish, pink lotus flowers and bowls of fragrant herbal pastes.
4 Beijing Get an early start at Panjiayuan, central Beijing’s open-air market, where you can pick your way through handmade furniture, art and stone carvings. Then take a guided bike ride and history lecture through the city’s vanishing hutongs, or alleyways, and around lively Houhai Lake. End near Mao’s mausoleum at Dazhalan Xijie, a hutong restored to century-ago status and filled with antiques, restaurants and shops (don’t miss the giant singing crickets caged on shop doors).
5 Bejing Have dinner at the Red Capital Club, a center-city hutong courtyard restored to kitschy Mao-era glory. Or try Duck de Chine, an elegant, industrial-chic Asian-French restaurant in another rebuilt courtyard, artfully hidden in the heart of Sanlitun, the city’s nightclub district.
6 Chengdu Watch bears take their breakfast at the Chengdu Panda Base at the edge of Sichuan Province’s capital. Back in town, shop for prayer flags and silver jewelry in the lively Tibetan Quarter, or head to nearby Jinli Ancient Street for Sichuanese specialties like hand-crafted shadow puppets. Join laid-back locals for a bottomless cup of chrysanthemum tea in the peaceful Wenshu Temple teahouse. Sample Chengdu-style hotpot — morsels boiled in a chili-infused broth — at Lao Ma Tou Hot Pot in the trendy Yulin neighborhood. And for a different sort of fire-breathing drama, nothing beats a performance at the Sichuan Opera House.
7 Mount Emei, Sichuan There’s more than one way up the misty slopes of Chinese Buddhism’s highest holy mountain. Climb thousands of stairs and stay overnight in monasteries along the 32-mile main path. At the apex, the Golden Summit is home to a huge golden multifaced Buddha on a four-headed elephant — a great spot to take in the sunrise. Or take buses and cable cars to sights halfway up, like the terraced Wannian Temple. Stop at the Hard Wok Cafe just off the Venerable Trees Terrace, whose monastery is home to both chanting monks and mischievous monkeys.
8 Shanghai Start in the historic Bund area, on the west bank of the Huangpu River, with a stroll down Zhongshan Road on the recently renovated pedestrian walkway. At its end head toward a big clothespin-like sculpture — the Monument to the People’s Heroes — and make a quick visit to the Bund History Museum. Cross over to the other side of Zhongshan Road and head south to great food, art and drink at the Three on the Bund complex. Snack on oysters at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which moved into the old Shanghai Club space and inherited the Long Bar, which has been restored to its early-20th-century glory.
9 Yangshuo With its towering karst peaks and rice paddies, Yangshuo’s scenery yells China. Start in Yangdi, about an hour northeast of Zhangzhou, then take the four-hour hike (and three ferry crossings; buy tickets beforehand at an open-air stand near the Yangdi Wharf) along the Li River. At hike’s end in Xingping, snap a picture of Yellow Cloth Shoal, the gorgeous spot pictured on the back of China’s 20 renminbi note. Lunch at a riverside farmer’s cafe, then shop for handmade clothes, art, jewelry and crafts, like wooden frogs that issue a hollow croak when strummed with a wooden stick.
10 Peak Tram Beat the crowds by riding the Peak Tram up from the Central district in the morning. At the top, have breakfast overlooking the city at the Pacific Coffee outlet, then spend an hour walking the loop of Harlech and Lugard Roads, with views of Hong Kong and the outlying islands, before riding the tram back down. Walk under the highway to Hong Kong Park to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, where you’ll find lovely designs related to the region’s favorite hot beverage.
11 Cochin Head to the harbor, where, just past the iconic Chinese fishing nets that hover over the entryway, you can pick out red snapper, rock lobster or other freshly caught seafood. Bring your catch to a nearby collection of stalls where a cook will grill your lunch. Follow it up with an espresso at while checking out the latest exhibition from local and national artists. Then start the evening with a 6 p.m. Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kathakali Center.
12 New Delhi Start with a walk through the storied neighborhood of Nizamuddin, which, with its shrines, slums, kebab stands and qawwali singers, offers a glimpse into the despair, hope and history of the Indian capital. The 16th-century tomb of Emperor Humayun is its best-known monument. Next door, Sunder Nursery is a unique collection of plant species from near and far; another nearby tomb, that of Khan-e-Khana, a poet, is illuminated at night. Across the road, through a dense warren of mosques, graves and vendors of lamb and roses is the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, the 13th-century Sufi saint from whom the neighborhood gets its name and lore. There, at sundown, a men’s choir sings praise songs known as qawwali. At the smaller, quieter shrine of Inayat Khan, who took Sufi thought to Europe 100 years ago, qawwals sing every Friday under a glass dome that lets in the darkening sky.
13 Kovalam Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, near the southern tip of India, is known for its sea, sand and sunsets. Another gem is its mysterious song, which you can hear if you take a morning walk along the seaside next to the Vivanta by Taj, still widely known as the Taj Green Cove Hotel. You will hear it first — a gravelly chorus of men who sound as though they have lived hard and smoked long. Then you see them: wraparound lungis hiked up to their thighs, they walk into the water and haul in a large net heaving with fish. They sing as they haul. A few dive in on the downbeat, shouting “Whoop!” as if to mimic the call of a whale. At the end of the song and mime, fish glisten on the sand, fishmongers haggle, fish are carted away. You might haul yourself away too to sunbathe for the rest of the day. Sunset is glorious from the Sky Bar at the luxurious Leela Kempinski Kovaolam Beach hotel. For dinner, walk to the promenade and order a spice-rubbed fried fish that was pulled in that morning.
14 Mumbai Stroll to the Gateway of India and hop a rickety ferry to Elephanta Island to see the Hindu and Buddhist shrines and cave art. On your return, have tea at the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which has a nice harbor view. Skip the food stalls on Chowpatty Beach and instead, dig into chaat at Swati Snacks in the Tardeo neighborhood. Then, pretend to be a local and go to a horse race at the nearby Mahalaxmi Racecourse. Entry costs 20 rupees (about 45 cents at 45 rupees to the dollar) and you can buy and drink a decent bottle of beer outdoors.
15 Mysore Spend an afternoon at the city’s massive Mysore Palace, a masterpiece of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the heart of the city. Afterward, stop across the street at Cafe Aramane for local specialties like bisi bele bath, a spicy mix of rice and lentils. Once the sun goes down, grab a sweater before heading up to the Chamundi Hills for a sweeping view of the city and the palace — the building is bedecked with thousands of lights on Sunday nights.
(Note to Readers)
16 Kanazawa After checking out the enormous snow crabs and unfamiliar vegetables at the Omicho Market in Kanazawa, grab some fried fish and take your picnic to the lawn on the west side of the castle grounds where you can watch locals play gateball, a fast-paced relative of croquet. In Higashi Chaya, the former geisha district, don’t miss the gold-leafed building in the interior courtyard of the Hakuza Gold Leaf store. After dark, avoid the slick clubs in Katamachi, and instead seek out the fourth-story Bar Sturgis, an entertaining dive where the walls are plastered with posters and psychedelia.
17 Kawagoe Ride the train 45 minutes from Tokyo to Kawagoe. Known as Little Edo, Kawagoe has one of the largest and best-preserved collections of old warehouses in Japan, now filled with shops, restaurants and museums. Combined with a visit to nearby temples, a nearly 400-year-old wooden bell tower and Kashiya Yokocho, or candy district, Kawagoe is a perfect historical day trip.
18 Osaka Take in a night game at Koshien Stadium, home of the beloved hometown Hanshin Tigers baseball team. Sample concession stand offerings like fried pigs’ ears and grilled eel, but be back in your seat for the balloon extravaganza that fans unleash during the seventh-inning stretch. Then head to the carnival-like Dotonbori area and wander beneath fun-house decorations — giant crab, blowfish, dragons — while snacking on takoyaki (fried balls of octopus).
19 Tokyo Browse Shinjuku’s basement food halls, at the Isetan or Takashimaya department stores and take your prize (fresh sushi, perhaps, or Pierre Hermé macarons) to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Come nightfall, wander through the sensory overload of lights and sounds in Shibuya before plunking down some yen in a pachinko parlor. When your money is gone, seek out the Udagawa Cafe; you can tell it by the sign on the sleek black facade that says in English “The Peaceful Oasis in the Centre of Shibuya,” and try a banana beer in the lounge.
20 Tokyo Ameya Yokocho is a throwback to the days before Tokyo’s supermarkets and big box stores. The open-air street market, which runs under the elevated Yamanote Line between Ueno and Okachimachi Stations, is filled with vendors hawking everything from grilled squid on a stick to knock-off handbags.
21 LUANG PRABANG Rise before dawn and head to Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang, where hundreds of barefoot, saffron-robed monks collect morning alms. Have a croissant and coffee at Joma Bakery Café, then pedal around town on a rented bicycle, peering at the gilded Buddhist temples and mountain views. Have lunch at Coconut Grove, where spicy beef salad and steamed fish are served in a garden.
22 Largo do Senado Start your day early at this beautiful Portuguese pedestrian plaza with well-preserved colonial buildings. Walk past St. Dominic Church and up beyond the furniture stores (which offer good deals and inexpensive shipping) to early-17th-century St. Paul’s Catherdral. Ride escalators to the intact cannons of nearby Monte Fort, and see the excellent Museum of Macau before walking down for lunch at one of the Portuguese restaurants back near Largo do Senado.
23 Kuala Lumpur Start the day with a bowl of bak kut teh (pork-rib-based soup) or beef ball noodles at the Hutong Food Court in Lot 10 shopping mall. Across town near Chinatown is hip, homegrown Peter Hoe Beyond, filled with chic batik linens and handmade bags. Two of the city’s oldest temples are nearby — the Buddhist Sin Sze Si Ya, where you can have your fortune told, and the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman, with its colorful five-tiered tower. Pick up tins of rare tea a few blocks away at Purple Cane Tea House; you can sip the shop’s wares at its cafe around the corner.
24 Penang Start a clockwise taxi tour of Penang in sleepy Balik Pulau, with its single shophouse-lined street. North lies the fishing village of Teluk Bahang. In season (around May into July) nearby durian plantations offer tastings. Follow an in-situ lesson in aromatics at the Spice Garden with a drink on Batu Ferringhi Beach at Lone Pine Hotel’s sleek Batu Bar. Finish in George Town with a sunset amble along the waterfront promenade.
25 BAGAN To best view the thousand-year-old Buddhist temples and stupas scattered across this ancient imperial city, head out at dawn when the weather is coolest and the vast flood plain is nearly empty of tourists. Rent a Chinese bicycle from the vendors in front of the lovely Bagan Hotel along the Irrawaddy River and lose yourself on the dirt trails that wind past groves of palm trees and ruins tucked amid the foliage. Start at Thatbyinnyu Temple and admire its terraced marble facade tapering toward a curvilinear spire. Then check out Dhammayangyi Temple, a massive structure strikingly reminiscent of the stepped pyramids of the Maya. Finish the day with a sunset cruise and a drink along the Irrawaddy.
26 Katong District At the Peranakan Museum, hear the story of Singapore and Malaysia’s Peranakan Chinese community — descendants of Chinese traders who married local Malay women and formed a distinct culture. Continue your exploration in the Katong district, famed for its ornate Peranakan shophouses, villas, restaurants and sweet shops.
27 Kampung Village Hop on a bumboat from Changi Point to Palau Ubin. When you arrive at Kampung Village, rent a bike, buy a straw hat at the local grocer and tour the beautiful mangroves and beaches on bike trails that go around the island. Cool off with a Tiger Beer and lunch at Celestial Resort, which features a menu of local favorites like delicious fresh prawns grilled with ginger and garlic.
28 Mustafa Center At the Mustafa Center, Little India’s 24-hour “hyper” mall, you can find anything from deodorant to a fridge. Then grab a downstairs table at Komala Villas, a Singapore institution, and order up some delicious South Indian vegetarian cuisine. After lunch turn left out the door and have your fortune told by the “psychic” parakeets, Mani and Muni. Cross Serangoon Road to bargain your way through Tekka Market.
29 SEOUL Spend an afternoon wandering through the Samcheong-dong neighborhood, which is filled with traditional houses called hanoks converted into stylish cafes and shops. Try some Korean temple cuisine at Baru, a new Buddhist restaurant that’s part of a temple in the city center, and then sleep over with Buddhist nuns at Jinkwansa, a 12th-century temple in a park in northwest Seoul.
30 Elephant Orphanage and Kandy Start at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage in Kegalle and watch them take their baths; the older elephants submerge themselves in the gentle rapids, while the babies shower their backs with water spurting from their trunks — all against a backdrop of palm trees and distant mountains. Surrounding restaurants have terraces, perfect for nursing a Lion Lager. Next, hire a car and driver for the hilly and often beautiful one-hour drive to the ancient capital of Kandy. Though it suffers from urban sprawl, the city’s center is home to a sacred Buddhist shrine, Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth, which is set on a picturesque lake.
31 Bangkok Hop a Khlong Saen Saep boat taxi at Pratunam Pier (behind Gaysorn Plaza) to Bo Bae. A tiny soi, or side street, off Lang Suan Road leads to Bangkok’s oldest market, Nang Leong. Make an offering at the Chinese temple and then snack on specialties like sai-krok plaa naem (rice topped with sour pork, pickled shallots and shredded fish). Pick up kanom (sweets) at Mae Som Jit and exit past Chalerm Thani movie theater, enitrely made of teak.
32 Bangkok The Grand Palace, with its medley of temples and glittering spires, is Bangkok’s glory. From downtown, skim over the traffic on the Sky Train to the Saphan Taksin stop, go down Exit 2 to the pier and pay 14 baht ($1.35 at 30 baht to the dollar) to ride the Chao Phraya Express public riverboat to Tha Chang. Savor the clamor of food stalls, and sample fried banana, dragon fruit or countless other snacks. Visit the hall of the Emerald Buddha, then walk 900 yards to Wat Po, home of the country’s largest reclining Buddha, to the camphor-scented cool of its famous massage school.
33 Chiang Mai Join the locals at Huen Phen, an open-air restaurant with northern Thai specialties like spicy sausage and khao soy. Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is a sprawling maze of stalls and carts hawking real-looking Rolexes, pirated DVDs and handicrafts. Before browsing, have a street-side foot massage. For a city view, head to the Buddhist temple Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on top of Doi Suthep mountain.
34 Chiang Mai In multicultural Gat Luang, the riverside commercial heart of Chiang Mai, lunch on fermented bamboo salad and grilled chicken from stalls behind century-old Warorot Market. Pay respects at the nearby Guan Yu shrine, then, at Don Lam Yai market, grab mango and sticky rice to eat at Wat Ket, a small Buddhist temple across the pedestrian bridge. Don’t miss its quirky museum, which chronicles daily life in the hood.
35 Phuket In Patong, take a tuk-tuk south to Rawai, where artists and musicians mingle over cheap Chang Beers in beachside reggae bars. On the way, pick up some artwork at the Art in Garden Gallery, with paintings hung on branches and sculptures scattered around a rubber tree grove. Take in the view from the base of Big Buddha atop Mount Nagakerd before staking out a stretch of sand along the deserted northern beaches of Mai Khao.
36 Lhasa A guide is mandatory in Lhasa, but you can still plan your own itinerary. The bustling Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism’s epicenter, is a must-visit, as is Barkhor Street, which is both a pilgrims’ circuit and raucous street market. Jewels and textiles there are mostly fakes, but the Dropenling Tibet Handicraft Development Center’s shop carries real artisanal wares, like hand-dyed rugs. In the old city, spin golden prayer wheels at tiny temples, then fortify yourself with salty yak-butter tea in the Ani Sangkhung Nunnery courtyard, or yak steak at the plush House of Shambhala restaurant. Lhasa’s famous Potala Palace is breathtaking. Recover in the dark cave at its base, which functions as a lively teahouse, or in the calm luxury of the new St. Regis Lhasa Resort.
37 HANOI Peruse the airy boutiques around St. Joseph Cathedral for embroidered pillows, silk skirts and whimsical lampshades, then weave through the Old Quarter streets toward the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets. Find a plastic stool, order a 25-cent glass of freshly brewed pilsner and watch the tide of humanity course by. Then hop on a motorbike taxi and zip over to Chim Sao, a crowded restaurant with an opium den atmosphere tucked in an alley, and try buffalo sausage and banana blossom salad.